The Water Voyage – Water Episode 5 – “Starbucks coffee Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya” – The story of water and coffee.

Starbucks Kyoto Ninenzaka

The development of starbucks in Japan

Starbucks was first established in America in 1971 and had started off as a company specialized in roasting coffee beans. However, 11 years later, the company shifts its focus to selling espressos as a coffee shop. This shift became the foundation to what we know as starbucks today.

In 1995, Starbucks made its debut in Japan. Opening their first store in Ginza Tokyo, as well as Japan’s own Starbucks corporation. The franchise had came to receive an abbreviated Japanese nickname ‘Sutaba’ (スタバ). And as this coffee brand spread throughout the country, within all of Japan’s 47 prefectures, Tottori prefecture was the last place to welcome starbucks onto its land. Located in the Chugoku region of Honshu, the Tottori prefecture (鳥取県) is said to be the least populous prefecture, famous for its sand dune. They have once promoted their region with the slogan ‘We have no Sutaba (Starbucks), but we do have Sunaba (sand pits)’. But nevertheless, in 2015 Tottori finally opened its long desired Starbucks and the corporation completed its store franchise in all 47 prefectures.

The common design of each Starbucks store is most likely the ‘third place’ concept. Home being ‘first place’ while workplace and school are considered the ‘second place’. Starbucks had created a place which cannot be categorized in both first and second, but a third. Cozy sofa seatings, ambient lightings, a total non-smoking space and a floor terrace directed outward into the avenues. At the time it was an entirely innovative and different design compared to normal cafes and coffee shops in Japan. This worked as a trademark for the Starbucks brand.

Transmission of local charm through Starbucks, Regional Landmark store

Among the development on said common design, Starbucks regional landmark stores were born. The construction is architecturally designed throughout Japan’s symbolic landmarks and has been displaying local cultures to the world. So by 2020, there exist 25 of these special stores. The purpose of regional landmark stores is enabling visitors to rediscover the rich and breathtaking history, traditional crafts, culture and industry of each region. Many local design elements were incorporated in order to create a certain bond with the land and are worth a look.

Check out the Starbucks official site on regional landmark stores.

Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka chaya

During our trip, we visited the Kyoto Ninenzaka Yasaka Chaya (京都二寧坂ヤサカ茶屋店), one of Starbucks’ regional landmark stores. Ninenzaka is located above a path leading from the famous world heritage site, the Kiyomizudera temple, and is Kyoto prefecture’s busiest street. By renovating the shop into a model of Japanese architecture from the Taisho era, Starbucks works as an important place for conveying Kyoto’s culture and traditions while preserving them as much as possible.

In the Inei Raisan (陰翳礼讃) book wrote by Tanizaki Junichirou, he described silhouettes created from the penetration of light through ancient Japanese architecture as Japan’s beauty. Yet, this beauty Tanizaki preached does not refer to the blatant illumination but rather the shadows which have manifested from natural light. 

Therefore, to have such an exact replication produced within Starbucks was truly intriguing.

A Japanese style building, and Starbucks first ever ‘Noren’ placed on the shop eaves. Noren is a curtain which works much as a signboard/billboard for shops and is hung out when stores are open for business; contrariwise, putting the Noren away signifies that the place is closed.

Here are a few pictures of the shop’s interior. The place is divided into two floors, we placed our orders on the first floor, then headed on to the second floor. To our great surprise, the second floor was tatami ! Three ‘Zashiki’ (座敷) rooms to sit and relax with some coffee in hand after slipping off your shoes. The seating cushions are also local products made within Kyoto. From wall scrolls to low ceilings, this is the place to go if you wish to experience Japanese architecture.

From water to coffee

The location, architectural design and remarkable water quality should make an obvious difference even with similar concept stores.

Coffee is made of just water and beans, hence why the dedication and commitment of bean selections as well as brewing techniques results in a beautiful cup of coffee. Nevertheless, more than 90 percent of coffee is composed of water. It should only be natural to be as critical of this component as much as every other. That being said, the best type of water for brewing coffee should range from soft to mid soft water (Surface water which contains low ion of calcium and magnesium) and scientific experiments have proven that the majority of areas in Japan possess these soft/mid soft waters. It can also be said that coffee is highly compatible with Japan, Kyoto being one of the areas where soft water flows. When these soft waters are used for brewing, it has the ability to hinder the dissolving of coffee’s signature bitterness and produces a mild taste. On the other hand, coffee brewed from hard water (water with high mineral content) will result in a bitter taste. This has led to a culture of bitter coffees such as espressos in the west.

Starbucks in another country and Starbucks in Japan become a different experience through water. Therefore, It should be kept in mind that water flowing through each area is a valuable feature in itself. That which makes it course through the Kansai region and through us, is the water voyage.

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